Considered the start of the American foster care system, the Orphan Train Movement began as a social experiment. Between the years 1854 and 1929, the Orphan Train transported an estimated quarter million homeless children from New York, Boston, Philadelphia and other eastern cities to new homes and families in a number of Western and Midwestern states.
The children who were rescued and relocated on the Orphan Train ranged in age from babies to teenagers. One of these rescued kids was named Arthur Field. Nobody knows what his name was at birth, because he was abandoned on the steps of a Manhattan department store in 1918 when he was approximately one month old.
The infant Smith was discovered by a Gimbels store clerk who turned the homeless baby over to the New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital. For the next five years, the young boy lived at a succession of foster homes, none of which were very nice. Eventually, young Arthur was placed in the care of the Children’s Aid Society and transported via the Orphan Train to a Clarinda, Iowa family named Smith. The family adopted the boy, gave him their surname and raised him to adulthood.
In May 2000, Arthur Field Smith recounted as much of his Orphan Train story as he could remember to the New York Times. Smith recalled looking out the train window as it traversed the country, and seeing cows and horses and other things he’d never seen before. At the time the article, fewer than 200 of the 250,000 or so children who were rescued and relocated by way of the Orphan Train were still living.
Although the Orphan Train was lauded as a wonderful way to place poor city kids with loving families, not everyone was enchanted with the idea. Some accused the Children’s Aid Society of taking kids from existing families only because they were impoverished immigrants. Some said the rescued kids were sent to become indentured servants for their new foster families. This may or may not have been true, but the fact remains that the Orphan Train did a lot of good for a lot of kids who might otherwise not have done very well in life.
Since its founding in 1853, the Children’s Aid Society has provided countless kids with a host of necessary services that includes finding and funding foster families. Due to state laws prohibiting the interstate transport of abandoned children, the Orphan Train ceased operation in 1929, but the philanthropic foundation started by Charles Brace continues. Today, the Children’s Aid Society provides free school lunches, educational and medical services, and day care services for the children of working parents.
If you parents, grandparents, or other relatives were orphan train riders and you are trying to find their origins, please check out our research tools and articles about using DNA to find your family roots.